The Porsche 904 that closed out Briggs Cunningham's racing career

Contemporary photography by Chris Tropea; Period photography courtesy Revs Institute

This 1964 Porsche 904 Carrera GTS exemplifies more than just a pivotal time in the German automaker’s history. It also serves as a living, breathing account of the last chapter in Briggs Cunningham’s legendary driving career.

The car is part of the Miles Collier Collections at Revs Institute in Naples, Florida. “The 904 represented a new era for Porsche,” explains Scott George, the museum’s curator of collections, who started there as a restoration tech back in 1989. “It was an immediate hit, considered one of their most beautiful cars, immediately successful in racing, and was the first use of molded fiberglass construction.”

Designer Butzi Porsche shaped the 904 using the 1963 718 GTR coupe as inspiration. The 904 used a double-wishbone rear suspension with coil-over shocks, much like the last of the 718s. The 904, however, was the first Porsche to employ coil-over springs and unequal-length A-arm wishbones up front. Like the 718, the 904 also had a mid-engine layout. Power came from an updated, 2-liter version of the Fuhrmann four-cam engine that directly descended from the original Type 547 design from 1953.

Briggs Cunningham: Big Deal

In December 1963, Briggs Cunningham bought this 904. He had already made a name for himself in motorsports with many victories, including class wins at Le Mans in 1952 and 1962. His racing exploits earned him the attention of Time magazine, which featured him on the cover of its April 26, 1954, issue. 

When Cunningham took the 904 to Sebring, he was 57 years old. He tapped champion Porsche racer Lake Underwood as his co-driver, and together they took the class win and placed ninth overall. It was Cunningham’s third class victory in the event, with his others coming in 1953 and 1962.

After the Cadillacs, after his own creations, after the Corvettes, Briggs Cunningham ran this Porsche 904. 

“For he and Lake Underwood to buy a new car in ’64 and finish first in class was a pretty amazing achievement,” George says, “considering what we know of Sebring and the grueling nature of it.”

Cunningham raced the 904 only a few times before his final event, the 1966 12 Hours of Sebring. He then retired from racing and placed the car in the museum he had founded in California. 

After that museum was set to close in 1986, Miles Collier, son of Cunningham’s longtime friend Cowles “Miles” Collier, bought the collection. That would become the foundation for the Miles Collier Collections at Revs Institute.

“The car has remained untouched since before its time in the museum,” George says. “The car is not original to Porsche, because Cunningham, like he did with many of his cars, put his own marks on it.”

Cunningham Leaves His Marks

Cunningham did more than sail–winning the 1958 America’s Cup–and race cars. He also earned a reputation for both building and modifying cars for his own needs–remember Le Monstre, his famed Le Mans streamliner based on a 1950 Cadillac? Cunningham’s 904 also shows telltale signs of his handiwork.

[Pro Driver Jordan Taylor Jumps Behind the Wheel of "Le Monstre"]

“This 904 has its own hand-fabricated tail to try to make it lighter and direct air to the engine in a different fashion than Porsche did,” George explains. “The original bodies were pretty thick glass and chopper gun-sprayed in.”

His penchant for building a better race car didn’t stop there. “There are some modifications to the oiling system,” George says. “They added leather straps to the rear tail to keep it from flying open. They had a roll bar added in the back–it’s hidden, and it’s gusseted to the chassis. It’s had some chassis stiffening, with gussets added here and there.”

Cunningham and his team built the car to survive endurance races. “They put flashlights behind the rear window,” George notes. “If they would lose their taillights, the rules said you had to pull in and stop racing. They could turn on the flashlights if they lost their taillights.”

With the car in as-raced condition, the team’s repairs still show. “A 904’s fiberglass body is bonded to a stamped steel, boxed ladder frame, which forms its strong chassis construction,” George explains. “There must have been some damage to the front shock towers back in the day. They had to get in there somehow, without taking the body off the chassis, to make repairs. They cut part of the fiberglass away inside the front compartment to get to those shock brackets, gusset them up and repair them, and they then patched the fiberglass.”

The Decision to Run It

Many museums only display cars, with no intention of ever running them again. Revs Institute takes a different approach.

“If you put your museum hat on, sure, museums are places where things go to be preserved, protected and cared for in perpetuity,” George explains. “Mr. Collier had a vision that, with a few exceptions, everything here is maintained in original running condition.”

Cunningham’s Porsche, however, sat for decades. “About 30 years ago, we ran the car, just a very little bit, at the museum and realized how special it was,” George explains. “We said, ‘You know, we don’t want to hurt this thing. We’re going to drain it and park it until we’re ready.’ It wasn’t until last year we said, ‘Let’s bring it back to life.’”

George explains that the time was right: “If we let it sit for another 10 to 30 years, there could be damage happening inside. We don’t want the oil to go to the point where it becomes corrosive.”

So Revs Institute decided to take it from mere display piece to something more. “How do you keep these cars alive?” George asks. “A car is meant to run, turn and move. Our philosophy is to keep the collections active, operational and, at the same time, not do any undue harm and do our best to prolong their lives.”

Getting It Trackworthy

The team first went to work on the engine. “Back then, the engine ran on castor bean oil–that was the best racing oil in the ’60s era,” George explains. “As the oil gets old, it gets sticky, hardens up and [becomes] gummy, so the engine had frozen from the oil residue. After warming up the engine–literally, we put some heat on it–the engine began to turn over. It was taken apart and cleaned.”

They had to address a few issues before running the engine again. “We put new bearings in it,” George continues. “We found a crack in one connecting rod and had to replace it. We went through it and did a valve job and put the thing back together. We didn’t want to make any more modifications than necessary. Other than the rod and the stickiness of the oil, it was in good shape.”

They took great care in inspecting and reviving the vehicle. “We were cautious from a safety standpoint,” George continues. “It’s got fresh fuel lines, oil lines and brake hoses. We carefully examined all the suspension for wear and cracks. We delicately rebuilt the ball joints and replaced the bushings. We got everything back together to make it function, but not to look like we had intervened.”

Also, in the interest of safety, they installed new, reproduction wheels and Dunlop tires. The original wheels and tires are on display in the museum.

“There’s an old oil can from 1966 that they used as the catch can for the engine. We left it there,” George says. “If you were to look at the engine today, it looks and feels like it did in 1966. It doesn’t look like we freshened the engine last week, and that was done on purpose. It takes a lot more care, attention and time to clean things carefully so you don’t hurt the patina.”

The Value of a Running Museum Piece

By turning the Porsche 904 into a running car, Revs Institute made some discoveries. “We ran this on the dyno to make sure everything’s running right,” George recalls. “This engine made more power than any of the 904 engines that’s been on that dyno. It dynos at a high 190-horsepower range, which is pretty good for cars of that era. The people that developed this knew what they were doing to tune these engines.”

Revs Institute has another 904 in its collection. Both run, which makes for an interesting comparison.

“The other 904 in our collection was raced only twice,” George says. “It started its life as a road car, converted briefly into a race car, and then converted back into a road car. It is now restored as a road car, which means it has a muffler and different features than the race car. To see a stock road car running at one sound, one speed, and then you see the [Cunningham] car, a full race-bred car, it’s a totally different animal.”

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sir_mike Reader
8/10/22 4:38 p.m.

Great story...thanks

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